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Tag: "labor"

World Cup Labor Standards

[ 29 ] March 19, 2014 |

We hardly need to cover the incredible corruption of FIFA. It’s only a matter of finding out how much money the Qatar sheiks and Russian oligarchs put in the pockets of FIFA executives to get the World Cup placed in those two nations. I love that Qatar said that “oh sure we’ll use space age cooling techniques in the stadiums so we can totally hold it in the summer” until the moment got the cup and now it’s going to have to be played in the winter. But perhaps the greatest scandal is the lack of labor standards in international sporting events. Despite the involvement of so many nations in a sporting event like this, the actual construction of the stadiums is left entirely up to the home country. If thousands of people die, who cares:

A report from the International Trade Union Confederation says 1,200 migrant workers from India and Nepal have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the 2022 World Cup.

The ITUC estimates that 4,000 migrant workers will die by the time the first game is played in 2022.

Workers at the Lusail City construction site told the Guardian that their bosses have withheld pay, forced them to work in 122-degree heat with no rest for food, and confiscated their passports to make sure they don’t leave the country.

Combine those complaints with squalid living conditions, and some are calling the situation in Qatar “modern day slavery.”

I’m sure FIFA is very, very concerned about this….

Franchising and Wage Theft in Fast Food

[ 89 ] March 18, 2014 |

Timothy Noah has a good run-down of wage theft in fast food and the role franchising plays in it:

What’s unusual here aren’t the claims of labor law violations, which are common enough, but rather, who’s being blamed. The wall that fast food workers hope to blast through with these class-action suits is the franchise system. All of the lawsuits name McDonald’s itself as a defendant, even though most of the targeted restaurants are owned not by McDonald’s but by McDonald’s franchisees.

Starting with Howard Johnson’s in the 1930s, franchising enabled fast-food companies largely to get out of the food business. Owning and operating the restaurants was mostly left to franchisees – usually mom and pop businesses that paid McDonald’s or Burger King or Dominos for the right to brandish their corporate trademark and prepare food according to their specifications. Today, most fast-food workers don’t work for McDonald’s or Burger King or Dominos; they work for franchisees licensed to sell their products.

Practically speaking, franchising makes it very difficult to hold fast-food corporations accountable for most labor violations that occur in restaurants bearing their name. Those aren’t our employees, the corporations can say; you got a problem with how burger-flippers are treated, take it up with their franchisee bosses. In franchise agreements – the contracts prospective franchisees must sign on a take-it-or-leave-it basis – franchisors explicitly disavow such responsibility. The McDonald’s contract, for instance, stipulates that “Franchisee and McDonald’s are not and do not intend to be partners, associates, or joint employers in any way.”

Like the subcontracting and outsourcing, franchising exists to increase profit for corporations while protecting them from liability. There is no reason at all why McDonald’s should not be held legally accountable for the actions of its franchisees, much as Wal-Mart and Gap and other apparel companies should be held legally accountable for the deaths at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh last year. In the recent past, judges have thrown these class-action suits out but as Noah points out, this one gathered a lot of evidence of McDonald’s direct involvement with its franchises that might suggest direct involvement in labor practices too that rip off workers.

This Day in Labor History: March 18, 1970

[ 16 ] March 18, 2014 |

On March 18, 1970, postal workers around the nation went on strike. This illegal but pioneering strike of public sector workers not only forced the Nixon Administration to cave but ushered in a decade of working class restlessness against their own staid union officials and a decade of public sector activism that would spur an enormous growth in union organizing among public employees.

Postal workers were deeply frustrated by the late 1960s. They had a union but lacked collective bargaining rights. They had not seen a pay raise since 1967. Many worked second jobs to survive. In 1968, the Kappel Commission recommended postal workers be granted collective bargaining rights, but Congress rejected it. Working conditions were not very good–many of the post offices were old, overheated or freezing cold depending on the season, dusty and dank. Leaders of the National Association of Letter Carriers (James Rademacher was the president of the NALC) were not particularly responsive to the bubbling frustration coming from the rank and file that would mark the 1970s in strikes like Lordstown. When Congress voted itself a raise of 50 percent while refusing to do anything for postal workers and then Nixon did nothing for them in his 1970 budget, this lit the switch of fury at their employers.

The postal workers were poor and they were angry. Over the desire of their union leaders, rank and file activists in New York called for a strike. When Congress suggested a 5.4 percent pay raise, the rank and file flatly rejected it. Union leaders did not want a strike, but they could not control the membership. The president of a New York City local was chased off a podium by his own members when he opposed the strike. Rademacher said on national television that the strikers were members of Students for a Democratic Society and did not represent the good Americans of the postal workers.

When postal workers went on strike on March 18, 1970, it was illegal because they did not have the right to strike. Writing to AFL-CIO president George Meany, Brooklyn postal clerk Steve Parise argued that the illegality of a strike was irrelevant: “Our union and our rank and file feel that the government has forfeited its immunity to a strike, not only because its open disdain for these men, but also the humility of financial hardships they have forced upon our families, such as seeking welfare to survive.” Said another postal worker to the New York Times, “Everybody else strikes and gets a big pay increase. The teachers, the sanitation and transit workers all struck [in violation of the law]. Why shouldn’t we? We’ve been nice far too long.”

President Richard Nixon called for postal workers to immediately return to work and said the government would not negotiate so long as the strike continued. Nixon said, “What is at issue is the survival of a government based upon law,” a statement we also know he applied to his own actions. Yet for the next week, the strike continued to expand, eventually leading to 210,000 postal workers off the job. He directed his Secretary of Labor George Schultz to agree to negotiate with the NALC as soon as the postal workers returned to work. This actually empowered Rademacher, who saw the rank and file rebellion as a direct attack upon his leadership. A wildcat strike that led to a massive victory would hurt him as much as Nixon. The rank and file totally rejected this offer, seeing it for what it was.

By March 25, the nation’s entire postal system had ground to a halt. This was as serious as the railroad strikes of the late 19th century because of the necessity of the USPS for communications in a way hard to imagine today. Like with the railroad strikes, Nixon ordered Operation Graphic Hand, sending the military to operate as scabs and deliver the mail. However, they were incompetent at this task. Moreover, this angered the workers who feared violence. In New York, some of the postal workers were actually National Guard members then called up, and they convinced their fellow troops to not do anything to move the mail. In less militant parts of the country though, the arrival of the military did bolster a back to work movement and some began trickling back.

Nixon was forced to negotiate despite his earlier pledge. What finally did get the rank and file to give up the strike was some dissent within the workers–the New York locals were far more militant than the rest of the country’s unions and many of those returned to work after the military became involved. So when Nixon and Rademacher announced the outline of a final agreement, militants wanted to continue striking but the rank and file generally approved and returned to work. The final agreement gave the postal workers an 14% pay increase (6% retroactive to 1969 and 8% for the next year) and collective bargaining rights on wages and working conditions, although not the right to strike. The workers were not punished for having engaged in an illegal walkout. This was a landmark moment in the history of public sector unionism, ushering in a decade of enormous advances for these workers, until Reagan kneecapped them with the PATCO strike.

The strike led to the Postal Reorganization Act, creating the United States Postal Service out of the old Post Office and guaranteeing collective bargaining rights for postal workers, albeit not the right to strike. The collective bargaining rights led to the creation of the American Postal Workers Union in 1971 from five preexisting unions. Continued rank and file activism against Rademacher’s leadership forced major reforms in the postal union, creating a more democratic organization. Vincent Sombrotto, who was a key leader of the postal workers movement, finally won the union’s presidency as a reformer after Rademacher retired in 1978. Before the 1970s strike, Sombrotto had to work a second job as a truck driver to feed his six children. Rank and file militancy continued in New York and New Jersey locals, led by civil rights activists and Vietnam veterans until 1978 when a wildcat strike led to the firing of 200 workers.

In the 21st century, Congress has undertaken a project to destroy the USPS entirely. The APWU has taken a lead role in fighting for the institution but it is probably doomed thanks to Republican evil.

This is the 99th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Southern Masculinity and the UAW Defeat in Chattanooga

[ 96 ] March 14, 2014 |

Mike Elk’s long piece on southern white masculinity and the defeat of the UAW in Chattanooga is well worth your time. There’s a long history in the South of working-class whites showing political deference to their social and financial superiors and it came to play again in Chattanooga. This deference is based on ideas of masculinity that promote individualism for yourself but loyalty to your superiors in rejecting invading forces.

The pro-union workers believe that statements by Jackson and the low-level supervisors were a major factor in turning the tide against the union.

“There is a reverence of the lower-level management,” says worker Feinauer. She attributes this attitude in part to a paternalistic culture at the plant that rewards loyalty over all else. “I … suspect the good ol’ boy system appeals to some of [the workers] because it may be the only strength they have to get themselves ahead,” she says. “If the playing field were more fair and level, they may have nothing to offer in skill, merit or education.”

Volkswagen worker Wayne Cliett agrees. “Yes, I see it daily. [Workers] are yes-men. They are ass-kissers. … All this, hoping to get ahead, and it works, because the supervisors eat it up.”

Experts and workers say this reverence for low-level supervisors may be strengthened by aspects of Southern culture. “There is this long tradition in the region of a (sometimes intense) personal identification with the company, especially among floor-level supervisors, [which] undermines solidarity and union organizing,” says Beth English, director of the Program on Women in the Global Community at Princeton University and author of A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry.

English, whose work centers on the textile industry in the South, notes that even as management positions became increasingly professionalized over the past century, with decision-making isolated from the reality of the shopfloor, “upper-level management continued to frame relations between workers and themselves as intimate and personal. “The long-standing paternalistic culture of seeing an employer as a benefactor … perpetuated among floor supervisors,” she explains. “The floor supervisor was the embodiment of that personal management style, so … floor supervisors’ loyalty to management wasn’t framed as disloyalty to the rank and file.”

“One of the rewards of being a supervisor in the South is the power that you wield over the people that work for you,” agrees Volkswagen worker Gravett. “When this power is threatened, many members of management go to extremes to keep their power. Harassment and the targeting of employees that threaten the system that gives management their power is fairly common.”

Of course as Elk points out, there are lots of white southerners who reject these ideas of masculinity and rethink southern resistance in ways that promote causes of equality. They have existed since the Civil War and today they use an alternative history of the Civil War as inspiration. The only problem is that they never manage to win over enough working class people to make a difference at the polls or in the union elections.

This Day in Labor History: March 14, 1954

[ 17 ] March 14, 2014 |

On March 14, 1954, the great labor film Salt of the Earth, a fictionalized version of a 1950 Mine, Mill strike in the zinc mines of southwestern New Mexico, premiered despite being lambasted as a communist plot, subjected to police harassment, and having one of its leads deported to Mexico.

On October 17, 1950, miners in Grant County, New Mexico went on strike against the Empire Zinc Company. These workers were led by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, or Mine, Mill for short. Mine, Mill was a communist-led union, a left-leaning alternative to the United Mineworkers of America. It was the direct descendant of the Western Federation of Miners, the radical mine workers in western mines that played a key role in founding the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. Mine, Mill joined the CIO, but was kicked out with the rest of the communist unions in 1950. Mine, Mill had supported the Wallace campaign in 1948, opposed the Marshall Plan, and defied the odious Taft-Hartley Act’s anti-communist provisions (although in 1949, it caved on this).

The workers had several complaints that led to the strike. They wanted their time traveling to and from the mines paid (a common point of friction in the mining industry). They wanted more paid holidays. Mostly, they fought against institutionalized racism. Jobs were classified to give the higher paying jobs to whites and the lower paying jobs to the majority Mexican-American workforce. The strikers were united in their demands to end this racist system. After 8 months of picketing, Empire Zinc won an injunction against the strikers, thanks to provisions of Taft-Hartley. Mine, Mill had few funds without CIO support and could not pay fines for violating the injunction. But the local’s ladies auxiliary proposed that they picket instead. Although this offended the gender norms of many workers, it was the only avenue they had to continue the strike. So they did.

For the next 7 months, women were the strikers, despite police harassment and arrest. The women were pretty intense. They dragged strikebreakers out of their cars, threw rocks at them, and even used knitting needles, rotten eggs, and chiles as weapons. They brought a new militancy to the front lines of this strike. The men were more than a bit flummoxed as gender roles were reversed and they had to stay at home and take care of children and feed the family while their wives took on the more traditional male roles, not to mention one fraught with real physical danger. Most of the men really did not like this at all.

Yet the tactic worked. Empire Zinc caved somewhat in January 1952. Mine, Mill certainly did not win everything, but they did receive a major pay raise disproportionately favoring the lowest paid workers which effectively undermined the racialized pay norms, even if it didn’t overturn them. The company also installed indoor plumbing in the company houses of the Mexican-American workers, a sign of how women’s influence in the strike affected the outcome and shaped the demands.

The strike received national attention from the left and after the victory, leftist filmmakers worked with Mine, Mill to shoot a feature film based upon it. It is a sort of last gasp of leftist filmmaking in the Cold War, combining a union evicted from its federation for communism and blacklisted film people. Herbert Biberman directed. He was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to play along with HUAC’s bumbling facade of an investigation against communists in Hollywood. Clinton Jencks, a leftist Mine, Mill organizer who only subjected to the Taft-Hartley anticommunist provisions at the last second (and in fact was later charged with perjury for signing the anti-communist card) plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself. Will Geer, also on the blacklist, plays the sheriff. Juan Chacon, president of Mine, Mill Local 890 is the main miner and his wife is played by Rosaura Revueltas, a professional actor from Mexico. The minor roles are played by locals, mostly the miners and their wives. The film itself is a landmark in a number of ways, not only for its sheer existence in the face of such virulent redbaiting and intimidation, but its promotion of women’s rights, indictment of machismo, feature of Mexican-Americans as protagonists, and focus on the viciousness of the employers and police. Even in the heyday of left-leaning film in the 1930s, this would have been controversial. The production was harassed by police. Revuletas was arrested and deported back to Mexico toward the end of the shoot. Vigilantes fired shots at the set.

The film caused a national outrage by redbaiters. It was officially condemned in the House of Representatives. During its production, in February 1953, Donald Jackson (R-CA) lambasted it in Congress, saying, “This picture is deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds and to depict the United States of America as the enemy of all colored peoples. If this picture is shown in Latin America, Asia, and India, it will do incalculable harm not only to the United States but to the cause of free people everywhere. “In effect, this picture is a new weapon for Russia.”

On March 14, 1954, the film debuted in New York. My old friends at the American Legion, a group always ready to raid an IWW hall or work as strikebreakers, called for a national boycott. Pauline Kael, reviewing it for Sight and Sound wrote it was “as clear a piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years.” That’s absurd. What the film does is present the dignity of people fighting for a better life, fighting against racism, classism, and sexism. If fighting for labor right and opposing racism is communist, sign me up. If anything, the film played down communism. The workers themselves were constantly accused of communism, but the subject never comes up in the film, either as a political position or an epithet. Only 13 movie theaters in the country showed it and it was forgotten for a decade.

The long-term effects of the strike on gender relations among the New Mexico miners is complex. Some couples returned to their previous ways of doing things. Others saw their relationship change. The wife of one high local official, who had been abused by her husband, walked out and moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, he went to L.A. to convince her to return. When she refused, he shot and killed her. At his trial, he claimed he was protecting his children from communism.

The film is also in the public domain. So watch it right now.

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For more on the background of the strike and the making and controversy around the film, see James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth.

This is the 98th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Does AFGE Officially Support the Death Penalty?

[ 88 ] March 13, 2014 |

The American Federation of Government Employees released an interesting press release today:

The American Federation of Government Employees today expressed its profound disappointment regarding a plea deal that will allow one of two inmates charged with killing a correctional officer in 2008 to escape the death penalty.

The case involves Jose Rivera, a 22-year-old correctional officer and Navy veteran, who was stabbed to death while working at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater in California. Two inmates were charged in the murder: James Ninete Leon Guerrero and Joseph Cabrera Sablan.

Leon Guerrero agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, under a plea bargain approved by Attorney General Eric Holder and made public by the Justice Department on March 7. Sablan will be tried and could face the death sentence if convicted.

“Jose Rivera was simply doing his job as a civil service employee when his life came to a violent and tragic end. On behalf of Jose and all the other federal employees who have lost their lives in the line of service, we must ensure that justice is done,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said.

“Regardless of who did the stabbing, both men are responsible for taking Jose’s life and both should be prosecuted,” CPL Western Regional Vice President Michael Meserve said. “That’s not going to happen now, and it’s a bitter pill for the family to swallow.”

Meserve added, “Leon Guerrero pleading guilty in exchange for a life sentence he was already serving is meaningless and an insult to Jose’s memory. Jose didn’t get the choice between life and death, and neither should his killers.”

Donald Martin, president of AFGE Local 1242 at Atwater, echoed Meserve’s sentiments.

“I believe that both men deserve the ultimate punishment our society can administer, and that is death. Granting a reprieve to one of Jose’s killers is an injustice to Jose and his family, and it lets down all law enforcement officers who place their lives in harm’s way every day to protect the innocent,” Martin said. “God bless Jose’s family, and may we never forget the sacrifice of their beloved son and our beloved brother.”

The AFGE is not a correctional workers union or a police union. It is a government employee union with 650,000 members in many different fields. It does represent many correctional officers at federal prisons. It also represents environmental workers, mine inspectors, nurses, office workers, and many other government workers. So is supporting the death penalty the official policy of the American Federation of Government Employees? Does its membership know it has taken this position? Has the membership had a discussion over this issue? The union certainly doesn’t list supporting the death penalty as a key issue on its website.

What’s really going on here (I think) is that the prison locals are pushing the leadership to make a statement here, but it really feels inappropriate. It’d be one thing for the union to call for the prosecution of this person for killing a member. But to make a statement because one of the people on trial didn’t get the sentence you wanted and therefore demand the most controversial sentence in American jurisprudence, well, I’m not sure AFGE is really representing its members as a whole by making this call.

I know that if I was an AFGE member, I’d be asking some questions of my leadership.

Meatpacking, Immigration, and Capital Mobility

[ 174 ] March 12, 2014 |

In comments last night, dollared said this about the decline of unionized meatpacking:

Allowing free immigration and mass union busting by illegal aliens. Never, ever, ever should have happened. 800,000-1M union jobs lost in meatpacking. Bill Clinton.

Now I don’t want to pick on dollared except for his demonizing of migrant labor through describing human beings as “illegal aliens,” which he has an unfortunate tendency to do and then claim those who call him out on it “don’t give a shit” about the American working class. Rather I want to use this comment as a way to understand how corporations use capital mobility as a way to bust unions while concealing the real reasons for job loss behind blaming immigrants (or environmentalists or many other scapegoats). I talk about meatpacking for a couple of pages in my forthcoming capital mobility book. Let’s look real fast at why those union jobs were lost in meatpacking and who is to blame. I’m basing a lot of this off Shane Hamilton’s Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy, which you should read.

Most readers here probably have some sense of the early history of American meatpacking, thanks to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Sinclair wrote his novel to expose the terrible lives of workers and convert readers to socialism. But Americans mostly ignored those messages. Workers stood on floors soaked in blood and water in very cold temperatures, with flying hooks and knives risking their limbs and lives every second. They began forming unions in the 1890s to improve their lives but it was not until the creation of the CIO-affiliated United Packinghouse Workers of America in 1937 that they achieved major gains in pay and working conditions. Organized labor increasingly played a big role throughout the nation’s food economy in the 1930s. UPWA members cut beef in Chicago. Milkmen delivering glass jars of fresh milk to your doorstep were Teamsters. The conditions that led Sinclair to write his novel faded. The UPWA was one of the nation’s most progressive unions. It worked for racial and gender equality and had a strong tradition of internal union democracy. By the 1960s, unionized meat cutters made twenty-eight percent more money than average workers made for nondurable manufacturing.

While meatpackers came to terms with the UPWA, for trucking companies, grocery store chains, and the Republican Party however, unionization and good wages were a bad outcome. Here starts the recent history of capital mobility in food production. A 1955 union contract won by the meatpacker unions put a collective $50 million dollars in workers pockets. This frustrated Eisenhower Administration officials who faced heat over high beef prices. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson and his undersecretary Earl Butz, who later created the modern farm subsidy system, wanted to raise farm profits without raising consumer costs. The answer was to undermine unions and squeeze wages through moving meat production out of the cities and into nonunion plants in the countryside, near where the cows and pigs were farmed.

New upstart meatpackers, with the support of trucking and grocery chains who profited from cheaper meat, introduced refrigerated trucks that allowed meat processing in union-free rural areas. This undermined the big Chicago packinghouses and their unions. The new rural corporations had ruthless anti-union mentalities. Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) became a leading meatpacker in the 1960s. Today part of Tyson Foods, IBP rapidly consolidated the rural meatpacking operations in the Midwest, built enormous feedlot operations on the Great Plains, and created nonunion workplaces with low wages. In 1969, IBP workers in Dakota City, Iowa went on strike. IBP hired scabs to replace them. Violence broke out on both sides and one person was killed. When union butchers in New York City refused to sell IBP beef, the company made a deal with the mafia to break the boycott, undermining the strike. Wages were soon fifty percent lower than in the Chicago plants. The big meatpackers could not compete, closed their unionized slaughterhouses, laid off 12,000 workers, and moved to the Plains as well. Further IBP hardline anti-union strategies led to the rapid weakening of what was now the United Food and Commercial Workers.

The new geography of meatpacking, with its decentralized production, low wages, and poor working conditions meant that farmers earned more money and consumers maintained low beef prices. Workers were caught in the middle, people never seen by meat consumers. Nonunion factories demanded vastly increased production from workers. Fatigue, repetitive motion injuries, serious accidents on the job, and high turnover followed. One IBP manager considered an average annual turnover rate of 96% at a plant “low,” showing how little the corporation cared to provide labor dignified enough work to keep them on the job.

Companies might not have wanted unions, but many in the new rural workforce did. The UFCW had major successes organizing southern poultry factories during the 1980s. Poultry truck drivers joined the Teamsters in North Carolina. The largely African-American workforce in these plants took major personal risks to improve the low wages and unsafe working conditions. Companies responded by closing unionized factories and opening new non-union plants nearby, threatening new hires into signing union decertification petitions, and declaring bankruptcy and then reopening the plants without union contracts. They also began replacing African-American workers with immigrants from Mexico and Central America, often undocumented. Beef plants in Iowa and Nebraska did the same thing after workers went on strike in the 1980s. An Immigration and Naturalization Service investigation led to 1991 accusations that Tyson Chicken paid smugglers to bring employees up to their plants from Mexico and Guatemala. Most unionized plants faded in the face of this determined effort.

In other words, Republicans, trucking companies, and anti-union rural business interests teamed up to reshape the beef industry for each group’s political gains. That forced Hormel and other big meatpackers to do the same to compete. Each were more than willing to sacrifice the American working class to make this happen. Capital mobility was the tool to see this project through. Yes, if the borders are closed to migrant labor, the new anti-union meatpackers have a harder time treating labor poorly, but they were determined to find a way to do this anyway. In any case, undocumented migrants are hardly to blame for the situation. Yet dollared, like so many people, first points to the workers forced to take jobs in this new system as the problem, not the underlying causes of why these factories moved. IBP, Tyson, and other meat companies covered up their own culpability through creating the same kind of scapegoating of migrant labor that has separated the American working class since the arrival of the Irish in the early 19th century.

And let’s note, if a president deserves blame for this situation, it isn’t Clinton, as dollared claims. It’s Eisenhower. That isn’t to say that Clinton did enough on this issue, but it’s important to place blame where it most properly belongs.

Overtime Pay by Executive Order

[ 108 ] March 11, 2014 |

Some of our more third party oriented commenters like to say that Obama has done nothing for workers. Well….

President Obama this week will seek to force American businesses to pay more overtime to millions of workers, the latest move by his administration to confront corporations that have had soaring profits even as wages have stagnated.

On Thursday, the president will direct the Labor Department to revamp its regulations to require overtime pay for several million additional fast-food managers, loan officers, computer technicians and others whom many businesses currently classify as “executive or professional” employees to avoid paying them overtime, according to White House officials briefed on the announcement.

Mr. Obama’s decision to use his executive authority to change the nation’s overtime rules is likely to be seen as a challenge to Republicans in Congress, who have already blocked most of the president’s economic agenda and have said they intend to fight his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25.

New American Manufacturing and the Crushing of the American Working Class

[ 106 ] March 10, 2014 |

Lydia DePillis has a typically great story on conditions within the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. Nissan now subcontracts a majority of its employees. Those employees make half as much money as Nissan employees doing the same work and do not qualify for benefits. Workers are forced to toil seven days a week during periods of peak production and are so tired they crash their cars on the way home.

What’s really happened here is that decades of capital mobility has undermined American unions to the point of inability to resist these problems. The methods companies use in their factories in the world’s poor nations to maximize profit and minimize liability are imported back to the United States, bringing working conditions in the United States down towards those of Mexico, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. Even the talk of unionism brings out the specter of capital mobility as a threat. Says Mike Sparks, who represents Smyrna in the Tennessee legislature, “If UAW gets a foothold, they’ll go to Alabama, they’ll go to Georgia, they’ll go to Mississippi.”

Once again, capital mobility is the single biggest factor in the undermining of the American working class because not only does it lead to jobs disappearing, but what jobs are left (or return) are worse because capital mobility also sabotages the institutions American workers created to fight for equity and a fair slice of the capitalist pie. Without some restriction on capital mobility, becomes nearly impossible for industrial workers to unionize and without those unions, it becomes nearly impossible to enact legislation that would improve the lives of the American working class. It’s a terrible situation and it isn’t getting better.

Truck Production Returning to Ohio

[ 17 ] March 9, 2014 |

While I’m pretty skeptical of UAW president Bob King’s love affair with employee-management cooperation as the keystone of his union’s approach, at least one point in his favor is Ford moving the production of two truck lines from Mexico back to Ohio, supposedly because of the good relationship the company has with the union. Of course, I assume that this good relationship means terrible two-tiered contracts. But still, American manufacturing jobs are all too rare these days, so this is good news for the UAW. It’s also a slap in the face to Bob Corker and Tennessee Republicans, or it would be if they weren’t all about ideology and actually cared about jobs.

Might as well also note the death of William Clay Ford, Henry Ford’s last living grandson and the owner of the Detroit Lions, a man who brought the same quality leadership and innovation to running a professional football team as he and his family did to producing fine automobiles in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Lives of Farmworkers

[ 105 ] March 7, 2014 |

California farmworkers remain nearly as exploited as fifty years ago. Filthy, substandard housing, a lack of water in the fields, pesticide poisoning, and poor sanitation define too much of their lives. These workers, migrant and beneath the radar of the Americans for whom they produce food, live horribly and it is unacceptable:

For California’s farmworkers, toiling all day in the brutal, sun-scorched fields is hard enough; the homes they return to each night are often in even worse conditions. Though the reforms won by previous generations have extended basic labor and safety protections to seasonal and immigrant farmworkers, many remain shut out of the right to decent accommodations.

According to a new report published by California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the housing crisis in the agricultural workforce has worsened over the last generation. Despite the locavore fads and slow-food diets that have infused today’s farm-fresh produce with an air of glamour, as a workplace, the fields still echo the social marginalization and scandalous poverty that sparked the groundbreaking grape boycott of the late 1960s.

Don Villarejo, the longtime farmworker advocate who authored the report, tells In These Times that growers have “systematically” reduced investment in farmworker housing over the past 25 years in order to reduce overhead costs and to avoid the trouble of meeting state and federal regulations, which were established as part of a broader overhaul of agricultural labor, health and safety standards during the 1960s and 1980s. According to Villarejo, workers’ modern material circumstances are little improved from the old days of the Bracero system. That initiative—the precursor to our modern-day guestworker migrant program—became notorious for shunting laborers into spartan cabins, tents and other inhospitable dwellings on the farms themselves, beset with entrenched poverty and unhealthy, brutish conditions.

Even today, however, surveys and field reports have revealed that a large portion of workers are squeezed into essentially unlivable spaces. Some dilapidated apartments and trailer parks lack plumbing or kitchen facilities, much less any modicum of privacy; others are exposed to toxic pesticide contamination or fetid waste dumps. Workers can “live in a single-family dwelling with perhaps a dozen to 20 [people] crowding in,” Villarejo says. In some residences, “mattresses are lined up against the wall because during the daylight hours you could not be able to walk through the rooms owing to all the mattresses on the floor at that time.” Though many such dwellings house single male laborers, whole families with children are also known to live in crowded multiple-household units.

This is the “market-based” answer to the rickety labor camp of yore: Though workers are now renting from a landlord rather a farm owner, Villarejo says, “their conditions are certainly no better than they were in the kind of labor camps against which we were protesting back in the ‘60s and ‘70s about horrid living conditions.”

Terrible.

This Day in Labor History: March 5, 1972

[ 141 ] March 5, 2014 |

On March 5, 1972, the workers at General Motors’ plant in Lordstown, Ohio went on strike after authorizing it two days prior. They were angry about sped-up work at their factory, but ultimately this was a young and diverse workforce angry at the degrading and mind-numbing nature of industrial work. The 3-week strike received national attention as much for the generational rebellion it summed up as the labor strife itself. Employers and union leaders both feared the “Lordstown Syndrome” that seemed to be taking over American workplaces as young workers wanted more for their lives than a lifetime on the assembly line.

By 1972, the United Auto Workers was in transition after the death of its titanic president Walter Reuther in a 1970 plane crash. The UAW was about as left-leaning as any of the major internationals during the last years of the 60s. Although Reuther’s record on dealing with racism in UAW plants was mixed, he pushed for civil rights and personally opposed both the Vietnam War and the AFL-CIO’s support of it. Finally, in 1968, he pulled the UAW out of the federation, complaining of the Meany doing nothing, refusing to organize, and undermining labor’s future. Reuther planned to take his union on strike against GM in 1970 hoping for a revival of the old-school social movement unionism. He died but the plan continued after his death under the leadership of Leonard Woodcock. However, it wasn’t much of a win and nearly bankrupted the UAW. Despite the social movement talk, the strike operated within the traditional structure of postwar collective bargaining. Moreover, the new contract allowed the company to automate the line, combine two divisions in the plant, and eliminate jobs.

Meanwhile, GM and other American car companies were beginning to face competition from low-price, high-mileage Japanese models. In response, GM created the Chevy Vega and chose to manufacture it in its new Lordstown, Ohio factory, just northwest of Youngstown. This new factory was engineered to do most of the work for the workers. Claimed a GM official, “The concept is based on making it easier for the guy on the line. We feel by giving him less to do he will do it better.”

Workers in Local 1172 hated it. By “giving him less to do,” GM really meant speeding up the line and laying workers off. The factory had previously made the Impala at a rate of 60 an hour. The Vega sped off the line at 100 an hour. This gave workers 36 seconds to a complete their task rather than 60. Workers resisted in a number of ways. The worked to rule, refusing to do anything outside of what was specifically stated in the contract. They smoked marijuana and drank on the job. The let cars go by without finishing them. They took days off or quit. They grieved everything. By January 1972, 5000 grievances clogged up the system, workers demanded the rehiring of laid off workers and slowed down production. This was a very young workforce, averaging only 24 years of age. These were young people imbued with the anger and rebellion of their generation. Some had fought in Vietnam. The plant was also highly integrated and with the overwhelming youth culture, the workers at least claimed that racial solidarity was more frequent than racial tension. Local 1172 president Gary Bryner, age 29, said, “The young black and white workers dig each other. There’s an understanding. The guy with the Afro, the guy with the beads, the guy with the goatee, he doesn’t care if he’s black, white, green, or yellow…..They just wanted to be treated with dignity. That’s not asking a hell of a lot.”

97% of the Lordstown workers voted to go on strike and it lasted 18 days. UAW leadership was distinctly uncomfortable with local uprisings. They took over the negiotiations and eliminated the empowerment of workers and shopfloor democracy that workers really wanted and brought it back to traditional collective bargaining. Both GM and UAW wanted this to end fast. So GM agreed to restore almost all the jobs eliminated in the 1970 contract and dropped 1400 disciplinary layoffs against current workers. So the workers won on one level, but not on another. Nothing really changed for workers. They still weren’t allowed to question production decisions or workplace culture. They weren’t allowed to play a role in the life of the factory like European auto plant workers, to which they compared their own lack of empowerment. They were still frustrated. Said a union official, “If you were 22 and had a job where you were treated like a machine and knew you had about 30 years to go, how would you feel?”

UAW cartoon during Lordstown strike

Activists around the country saw what they wanted to in Lordstown. Ralph Nader thought this would do for workers “what the Berkeley situation of 1964 did for student awareness,” while New Left publications believed it was “a trial run of the class struggle of the 70s.” What was happening however was a general dissatisfaction of the American working class with industrial production labor. The mind-numbing pace, the lack of ability to shape one’s own future, this would lead to a number of interesting moments of working-class rebellion throughout the 70s. J.D. Smith, treasurer of the Lordstown UAW local, said “They’re just not going to swallow the same kind of treatment their fathers did. They’re not afraid of management. That’s a lot of what the strike was about. They want more than just a job for 30 years.” The blue-collar rebellion became a fairly major media and political phenomenon of the period, with newspaper articles, TV reports, Senate hearings, and a presidential commission to study the issue.

The commission issued a report titled “Work in America,” that began the quality of work life movement,” that sought to make industrial labor more satisfactory and less mind-numbing. Perhaps these and other 70s working class rebellions could have led to concrete gains had industry not also engaged in widespread capital mobility, leading to the elimination of nearly all industrial jobs over the next twenty years, destabilizing the American working class, and destroying the cities of the industrial north. Government moves to bust unions certainly has blame too. In the PATCO strike, Reagan came down hard against air traffic controllers who had overthrown their previous union leadership to take a more militant stance.

Over the years, the radicalism of Local 1112 wore down. In the 1980s, workers picked their own union hall against concessions forced upon them by UAW leadership. Today, they talk the same management partnership language as the rest of the union. Surprisingly, the plant is still open and has made the Chevrolet Cruze since 2010.

Much of this was borrowed from Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, which I strongly recommend.

This is the 97th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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